Boardwalk Empire 5.03: “What Jesus Said”

The first two episodes of Boardwalk Empire’s final season were sprawling and raucous, with assassination attempts, mob hits, and multiple severed ears. Last night’s episode, “What Jesus Said,” is distinctly quieter and more plaintive than its predecessors. This isn’t to say that the episode is free from carnage. Far from it. Violence—or the threat of it—hangs heavily throughout the entire hour. But the plotlines in “What Jesus Said” are all extended, intimate affairs, allowing time for the stories to breathe and the characters to contemplate their circumstances. The result is an episode that plays like a series of chamber pieces revolving around the same theme: fathers. More specifically, absent ones.

Chalky is confronted head on with his failings as a father when he and his fugitive partner Buck attempt to rob a house Buck had cased before going to jail, only to find the mother and daughter are still at home. Buck, no longer the class clown of the chain gang, still holds a grudge against the man of the house over how he treated Buck years ago. After learning there are no valuables in the house, Buck turns his plans for revenge to the daughter, Fern. Chalky senses this shift and becomes protective of Fern, who is about the same age as Chalky’s daughter Maybelle was when she was killed. When Buck finally snaps and attacks Fern, Chalky plants a hammer in the side of Buck’s neck, saving Fern in a way he didn’t save Maybelle. Consistent with the theme of the episode, we also learn that Fern and her mother were placed in this vulnerable situation by an absent father, who has split on his family.

Nucky has been in a rueful state all season, though his guilt hasn’t had the specific focus of Chalky’s. In fact, of all the things Nucky regrets, the separation from his kids seems low on the list. This fact is highlighted by Nucky’s visitor to Atlantic City, Joe Kennedy. In town to discuss a partnership on the Bacardi deal, Kennedy spends the day subtly assessing Nucky’s character. Though played convincingly by Matt Letscher, the Kennedy character at first comes off a bit clumsy and forced, with obvious references to his questionable business past and his eight (and counting) children. However as the night progresses and Nucky pushes Kennedy on the partnership decision, Kennedy’s intellect and ruthlessness emerge. Kennedy turns Nucky down, not because of his failings as a businessman, but over his failings as a father, noting that there are no photos, no drawings, or any other reminders of them in Nucky’s office. He is appalled that Nucky doesn’t even know what age they are. This is important to Kennedy because he believes that a man must make his money for a reason, and in Kennedy’s case, it’s for his kids.

Nucky tries to fight back, accusing Kennedy of using his kids as an excuse for his ambition, for engaging in dubious business practices, and for being an absent father in his own way (by traveling constantly for work). But Kennedy has struck a chord with Nucky, who breaks down, finally putting words to what has been haunting him all season: that he fears his life has been an empty one and he wants to leave something of worth behind. This show of candor appears to win Kennedy over to Nucky’s side. Well, either that or Kitty the showgirl, with whom Kennedy has become infatuated. For Kennedy, it seems, familial obligations only go so far.

The fatherhood theme was hammered home in this week’s flashbacks as guests at the hotel continually call Nucky “boy.” In lieu of a father, Nucky continues to get his life’s lessons working for the Commodore. After a lover’s quarrel results in a murdered woman, the Commodore takes care of the situation quietly and lethally. Airing your dirty laundry in public, Nucky is told, is “bad for business.” We also meet what seems to be Nucky’s first wife, Mabel, while she is on vacation in Atlantic City, where the memory of whom still tugs at Nucky.

We get our gangster fix with the return of Dr. Narcisse, now the undisputed underworld king of Harlem (no doubt abetted by his cooperation with J. Edgar Hoover). His stature allows him to spurn Luciano and Siegel, who drive uptown to try and make a deal with Narcisse for protection money. Narcisse is as confident as ever, but he’s not as vibrant as he was seven years ago. He appears tired, hollowed out, the years spent as an informer weighing on him. Narcisse’s point of pride was always that he was his own boss, unbeholden to any man, and especially not a white one. Snitching for J. Edgar, the whitest of white men, has taken its toll. Narcisse is both annoyed and amused by Luciano and Siegel, even finding absurdity in their “friendly little names.” Narcisse certainly knows what the consequences for turning down Luciano and Siegel. Why he isn’t more concerned with them is unclear, but it seems that a good dose of self-hatred might be part of the reason.

As tense as these scenes between gangsters were, Margaret’s meeting with Arnold Rothstein’s widow, Carole was every bit their equal. Management has discovered Margaret’s complicity in Rothstein’s insider trading, and Margaret must placate Carole in order to save her job. Carole is having none of it. Arnold left her with nothing, except humiliation, and she wants what’s hers. As shrewd as her husband, she knows about Margaret’s past, both with Arnold and with Nucky, and uses it to her advantage. She tells Margaret that if the company doesn’t have the money, Margaret and Nucky will pay her back personally. If she doesn’t comply, she assures Margaret she will go to the press, dragging her and Nucky through the mud the way she was after Arnold’s death. This tactic is not something Nucky can abide, especially now that he is trying to make his way in the legitimate world. Unaware of this development, Nucky’s initial happiness at seeing Margaret in the final shot of the episode will probably be fleeting.

The title of the episode comes from Fern, who tells Chalky, “There is forgiveness for everyone. That’s what Jesus said.” Chalky, unable to forgive himself for what happened to Maybelle, responds, “Baby girl, Jesus was wrong.” Fern’s quote doesn’t just apply to Chalky. Everyone in Boardwalk has done wrong, and many are looking for some type of absolution. None more so than Nucky. But plans have a way of going astray in Atlantic City, and just because Nucky may attempt to atone, doesn’t mean he won’t have to pay for his sins, as well.

Court Haslett is the author of Tenderloin, a crime novel set in 1970's San Francisco. Follow him on Twitter @courthaslett and at The Rogue Reader.

Read all of Court Haslett's posts for Criminal Element.

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